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Waste, turtles, and money: Why Irish pubs and cafés are ditching plastic straws

We talked to them to find out more about the reasons behind the decision.

IF YOU VISIT Sweet Beat café in Sligo, like most other places of its ilk it will give you a straw in your drink.

But the straw won’t be the plastic, one-use type of straw you’re used to. Instead, it’s made of stainless steel. It’s reusable, won’t rust, and it’s supposed to last for years.

Sweet Beat is one of a number of Irish businesses that has shown it’s possible to rethink how much – and what type of – waste your business creates.

And while the issue of coffee cups and recycling has been on the agenda of late, it’s straws that have been slowly becoming the latest face of environmental change in Ireland.

Why is there such a focus on straws? According to the campaign group The Last Plastic Straw – which is a project run by the Plastic Pollution Coalition – in the USA they use 500 million straws a day. Enough to wrap the circumference of the earth 2.5 times.

Instead of biodegrading, plastic degrades into smaller and smaller pieces, explains The Last Plastic Straw. And these pieces get ingested by marine and land animals.

What about plastic straws that can be recycled? At the moment, Ireland is having issues with its plastic waste – China used to take 95% of it, but it has now stopped taking in imported plastic. Ireland is one of Europe’s top five plastic waste offender, as we produce 61kg per person, per year.

So recycling isn’t always the answer.

And a viral video showing a turtle having a plastic straw removed from its nose showed the impact that the 5.2 trillion pieces of trash in our oceans can have on wildlife.

That turtle influenced the Generator hostel in Dublin to only give out straws on request, and now it’s looking to phase them out entirely.

It told us that from November of last year it started asking people if they wanted straws. “We won’t be restocking,” it said.

The trend for bars going straw-less was also noticed by Publin.ie  - a site about Dublin pubs – earlier this month, which highlighted how bars like Dublin’s Whelan’s had switched to compostables, or to only giving out compostable straws on request.

J.T Pims in Dublin has also removed its straws, replaced with compostable straws that are only available on request.

Putting your ethics where your mouth is

Sweet Beat was set up by Ballymaloe-trained Carolanne Rushe, after she returned to Ireland having spent time abroad. Her focus has always been on healthy, nourishing food, and serving plant-based food is influenced by her ethics. So it makes sense that other aspects of her work would be planet-friendly too.

When she sold her food at markets in South Africa, she used compostable packaging – travelling an hour into Johannesburg to pick up the items – and so when she opened Sweet Beat (which serves plant-based, vegan-friendly food), she wanted to do one better.

She initially used compostable straws, but she wasn’t that happy with the situation. “It was always bugging me and recently I was on a trip to Berlin – my sister lives over there – and on the first day we were there I ordered a smoothie and the smoothie came with a stainless steel straw,” she tells TheJournal.ie.

She couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of this idea herself. “This is so simple,” she thought. “It’s much better for the environment and it saves us from having to buy straws all the time.”

Rushe was able to buy steel straws for her café, and their introduction was welcomed by Sweet Beat’s customers. “We couldn’t keep them in stock. People were coming in and buying them. It was great to see the reaction to straws being used,” she says.

At Christmas time I think nearly everyone in Sligo must have got one as a stocking filler.

The steel straws “look amazing – there is no nasty taste off them, and they don’t rust. They are lifelong,” says Rushe. “I always think it’s a really nice gift for people to get.”

Compostable straws have to be commercially composted, so you can put them in your brown bin but not in your home composter.

Rushe is hugely motivated to tread lightly on the planet. “Everyone’s seen the video of the turtle getting a straw pulled out of his nose. It breaks my heart thinking I could be contributing to that,” she says.

At Sweet Beat they use recycled toilet paper, buy their soap in bulk, and serve up food with a low carbon footprint. They have their eye on being zero waste, and have even contacted suppliers to ask them can they reuse items and try not to use plastic when bringing in the day’s vegetables or items.

Trickle down effect

They had “an amazing response” from suppliers, and Rushe feels that the effect will trickle down.

They are doing their bit. Once you put in your request it may go to the next person and next person. I am one person in a small café in one tiny part of Ireland but if I can make a little change that will help. Straws are a huge thing. I think it’s time everyone stopped serving them or used something alternative.

“I remember reading before, that when the rubbish leaves your front door you forget about it but it’s still out there,” she says. “I have to keep reminding myself of that.”

What does she say to people who ask: Why get rid of straws? “We explain to people that it’s creating unnecessary waste, and when you say that to them they go ‘oh, that’s right’. It’s the same as a coffee cup – you use it for less than five minutes and then it goes in the bin.”

Sales of reusable coffee cups are high at Sweet Beat. But Rushe thinks that there’s plenty of education still to be done when it comes to recycling in Ireland. “I think there should be education on how to recycle properly,” she says.

“We have straws that we reuse so we don’t have to go and buy them which is a huge saving. There’s all the different reasons for doing it but money saving is a bonus of it. It wouldn’t be the main reason for it.”

“I think there’s been so much publicity recently with the whole Blue Planet season 2 – ‘if David Attenborough says it, we should do it’,” she says. “We offer a discount for reusable coffee cups and loads of people are coming in with their reusable cups. It’s not just a trendy reusable cup. There’s a lot of people paying attention now – hopefully it will grow.”

Source: Down2EarthMaterials/YouTube

Phenomenal interest

John Lynch is the senior sales executive and organic recycling advisor with the Cork-based Down2Earth materials, which supplies compostable coffee cups, straws, and other items to food businesses in Ireland.

He told TheJournal.ie that while there are no recycling facilities for standard coffee cups or lids in Ireland, there are a number of commercial composting facilities.

Standard coffee cups can’t be recycled because even though they are made of partly-recyclable materials, they also contain a layer of polyethylene or expanded polystyrene, while the lids are made of polystyrene – and we don’t have the facilities to take the cups apart. In addition, food contaminates recyclable items.

Down2Earth believes the only solution for zero waste in food service is compostable products. For starters, they can be composted even if contaminated with food waste.

Down2Earth sources its compostable products from the company VegWare.

“I was in Seattle in 2004/5 and I spotted a lot of compostable material being used there,” explains Lynch of how it all began. “We spotted an opportunity in Ireland for food service packaging users to move away from non-recyclable products because everyone thinks their sandwich container or soup container can get food in it, but it can’t.”

He said that conventional food packaging is usually made of oil, and oil-based plastic that’s contaminated with food can’t be recycled if it’s not clean.

If you use a plant-based lining on the inside of your coffee cup, it can be composted with food waste. “Ireland is set up for a food waste campaign,” said Lynch. He pointed out under Ireland’s commercial food waste regulations, commercial premises must segregate food waste and send it to be composted.

He said that their items get composted in Ireland within 90 days at commercial composting facilities, and then that compost goes on to be used on agricultural land, for example. In some locations, compost can be bought by members of the public.

“We need to be the first country in Ireland to move away from single-use plastics to compostable products,” said Lynch, adding that composting products is cheaper for business owners, typically by about 35 – 40%. (Waste companies might add their own margins to that.)

With regard to compostable straws, Lynch said that the company was “absolutely sold out before Christmas”.

The interest in compostable products has been “phenomenal” he said – to the point that Down2Earth hired four people this week and has another two about to come on board.

“It’s been a huge success.”

We’re educating customers: Do you really need to use a straw, and if you do please use a reusable straw, and if you can’t, use a compostable straw.

Read: ‘We have to get a grip as a society’: Could you stop buying clothes for a year?>

Read: Bottle deposit scheme on the way for Scotland, but Irish government says it’s still too expensive>

Read: Zero waste living: ‘You regret not starting earlier – you see your whole life as a waste of money and time’>

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